Never Come Morning–the Movie

Prop Theatre’s critically acclaimed Never Come Morning has turned into something of a cash cow. Since opening in late September, the play–based on a Nelson Algren novel about Wicker Park’s immigrant underclass in the 1940s–has been selling out its week-end performances at the Latino Chicago Theater Company’s Firehouse, which seats about 80. “We had no idea it would get this kind of response,” says artistic director Scott Vehill. With tickets going for $17.50 on Friday and Saturday nights, the show has been bringing in nearly $3,000 a weekend. The windfall could grow much bigger if Prop succeeds with its plan to make the play into a film.

For the bargain-basement price of $5,000, Vehill has purchased exclusive rights to film the Algren novel. His one-year option begins January 1 and is renewable each year. In 1988 Vehill tried but failed to acquire the film rights to another work Prop had adapted, William Burroughs’s The Last Words of Dutch Schultz. Based on that experience he had expected to pay $20,000 to option the Algren novel. Paul Peditto, who wrote the stage version of Never Come Morning, is just beginning work on a script for the film. He expects to complete it by the middle of January.

Originally adapted for Famous Door Theatre Company, the play was gathering dust until Vehill read it and, according to Peditto, realized it had possibilities. Vehill subsequently gave it to director Jennifer Markowitz, whose talents had helped make Famous Door’s Hellcab a long-running off-Loop hit. After she agreed to direct it for Prop, sources say she and Peditto clashed over how to stage the work. He wanted to preserve the script’s sentimental aspects, but Markowitz’s visceral, high-energy vision prevailed.

Peditto says his chief concern in crafting the screenplay will be staying true to Algren’s book. He says he’ll pay particular attention to Bruno, the thug at the center of the story, and attempt to make his story “redemptive.” The play ends with Bruno’s arrest for murder after he wins a boxing match. “In many ways this is the Rocky story with a downer ending,” Peditto says.

To help make the project a reality, Prop has brought in Steve Jones as the film’s executive producer. A Chicago-based filmmaker, Jones has produced several films with John McNaughton, including the recent Mad Dog and Glory. Though the dark aspect of the Algren material doesn’t bother him, he does think a workable screenplay of Never Come Morning will have to be less complex than the novel. “We will probably wind up removing a lot of the minor figures.”

The budget for the film could be as low as $500,000, but if Jones can interest name actors in the project, he says he’ll be able to raise more money. “The dollars you get for a film are generally tied to the casting.” Jones says that ideally a prestigious independent distributor such as Gramercy or Samuel Goldwyn would put up about half the production costs and overseas investors would provide the rest. But he says the first and most important step is a strong screenplay. “We have to have that before anything else can happen.”

Changes Afoot at Ballet Chicago

The turmoil continues at Ballet Chicago. It plans only one short week of performances this season: a production of Coppelia at the Shubert Theatre April 5 through 9 as part of the Spring Festival of Dance. And exactly who will perform at these engagements remains to be seen. In its ongoing negotiations with the American Guild of Musical Artists, the company is pushing for a 5-week contract, but the union–which had a 32-week contract last year–is resisting its attempts to scale back. If the parties haven’t reached an agreement by early 1995, AGMA administrator for dance Alexander Dube says he is prepared to issue a directive urging union dancers not to work for the company. In that event, a board member indicated, the company might go with cheaper nonunion hires.

Meanwhile, with the help of a grant from the Chicago Community Trust, the company, whose small staff is subject to frequent turnover, has brought in consultant Mark Tiarks to help develop a staff plan for the current fiscal year. Tiarks has also restructured the board of directors by replacing outgoing board head William Staley with a consortium of four board members–Charles Gardner, Carlene Jones, Jerry Rose, and Jan Harper. Says Tiarks: “This approach allows us to carve out manageable chunks that each individual can feel responsible for.” Gardner is working on finance and operations, while Rose and Harper deal with fund-raising and Jones attends to special events and board recruitment. A fifth board member is expected to be put in charge of marketing.

Despite this administrative upheaval, Ballet Chicago plans to open a ballet school January 9 on the premises of the now-defunct Ellis-Du Boulay School. The former operators of the school will remain on staff as instructors. Besides training new dancers, the school will provide new revenue for Ballet Chicago in the form of tuition.

Moving and Shaking

Performing Arts Chicago lost a key staffer last week with the departure of Carol Fox, who’d managed the 35-year-old organization’s marketing and public relations efforts since February. “It turned out that this just wasn’t what I was looking for,” says Fox, who says she needed more time to spend with her young child. She intends to launch a new career as a free-lance marketing consultant. PAC executive director Susan Lipman says, “She needed a lot of time off during what is a very ambitious year for us.” After years of offering mostly music, PAC is currently presenting its second season of more diverse programming, including dance, theater, and other events.

The long-delayed restaurant and theater complex planned by Michael Cullen and Joe Carlucci for Southport just north of the Music Box appears to be moving toward fruition. Carlucci’s Italian eatery will be called Strega Nona. Cullen, whose commercial theater production company–Cullen, Henaghan and Platt–closed down two years ago, will have a joint named Cullen’s Bar & Grill. He says he’s always dreamed of owning a bar. “I’ve raised a lot of money [for theater productions] over the years in restaurants and bars.” A press conference is scheduled for mid-January to announce details of the Southport project.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.